Years ago, when Personnel Departments around the country were beginning to change their name to Human Resources, I proudly told a friend that my job title at the time was changing from Personnel Director to Director of HR—we were coming into the modern business age. I was taken aback when he retorted, “How dehumanizing to refer to people as resources!” I thought a lot about his reaction, and in many ways he was absolutely right. At least “personnel” had a connotation that the work is about the people. By definition, “resources” means “money, or any property that can be converted into money.” In other words, resources are things we own and/or use. This is not typically the way people like to think of themselves.
Before I go any further, I want to clarify that the purpose of this article is not to criticize Human Resources departments, or the moniker. Companies can call their HR departments whatever they want, but it isn’t the name that’s going to make the difference. It’s how they treat employees. That’s why this blog post raises the big picture question of how companies think about their employees: as usable resources or as people?
I had another friend who told me why he left a good job at a company he originally thought was a great place to work. As a consultant he worked hard and put in lots of time, churned out many billable hours, and did excellent work for his company and their clients. One time his boss said something quite chilling to him, something to the effect of: “You know, you are like inventory to me. When I need you, I take you down from the shelf and put you in service. When I don’t, I put you back and you stay there until I need you again.” It was at that moment when my friend realized he was not in a place that respected him as a person, and so with his highly sought-after skills he quickly found another position elsewhere.
My friend’s story is the perfect example of an inhuman approach to management. His boss treated him as a resource to use up and wear out. And soon enough, he did just that.
Wouldn’t it be better to value your employees, work to develop and engage them, and keep them around? I sure think so. Far too many organizations today need to put the “human” back in human resources.
There is a quote attributed to four sisters of the Daughters of Charity who came to Indianapolis in 1881 to open a new hospital at the request of Francis Silas Chatard, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Vincennes. In speaking of their mission, the sisters said, “We have a mission, a reason for being here. To keep health care human, human for our patients, human for our families, human for our doctors and human for all associates. The poor will come and the rich will come, if they know they are going to be treated as people.” Their philosophy worked, as that was the beginning of what is now St.Vincent, a thriving, successful, mission-focused health system of hospitals and care providers in Indiana.
When you treat employees as people, you acknowledge that they are more than just their job title. They have a mind, body, and spirit that make them a human being; a person with dreams, goals, and a life outside of work. I believe that whether we can successfully treat employees as people in the workplace depends on the leader.
I was speaking with an executive at one of St.Vincent’s facilities recently, Blake Dye, President of St.Vincent Heart Center. He told me how important it is to have a balanced, holistic view of work, self and others, and to model and encourage work-life balance. When every new leader comes on board, Blake talks with him or her about his belief that we bring our whole selves with us to work, and that who we are is not just made up of our skillsets. He points out that being successful is first about being capable, but it is also about balance. He stresses that he doesn’t want his leaders to just have the appearance of being busy and working hard, but to do excellent work and achieve results within a reasonable workweek. He tells leaders that if they have to work excessive hours to get the job done, then they aren’t doing something right. He acknowledges that leading healthcare is hard work, so he takes an interest in making sure their work doesn’t overtake and exhaust them, knowing they cannot be at their best in any aspect of their life if that happens.
What Can Leaders Do?
Meaningful change comes from the top. As a leader, what can you do to make your workplace more human?
- Speak to your employees at the time of their orientation and acknowledge the importance of work-life balance, and share some practices that encourage it. Model what you say, and ask yourself if you are also allowing yourself to be human and practice work-life balance.
- Integrate your messages to employees so that excellence and respect for our human nature are balanced. Emphasize that excellence includes learning from mistakes, and if we are too afraid of failure we may not be bold enough to create new solutions and find better ways of doing things.
- Create policies and practices that encourage new skill development within your workforce. Plan and budget for employee training and development.
- Assess your workplace culture. I have done this with clients using a Cultural Health Indicator (CHI) tool, and have found it to be very revealing about what makes for a flourishing workplace.
- Add a “People Report” to the Board agenda—before the Financial Report—to emphasize the important work people are doing to help meet organizational goals and to discuss what could be improved.
Making a workplace human is not only the right thing to do, it engages people because they are able to flourish and be at their best. The sisters who came to Indianapolis to start St.Vincent 135 years ago knew that, and they also knew that patients, families, doctors, associates, and people of all types and socioeconomic levels served by the hospital would be attracted to that kind of place. They were right.
My next blog post will explore what it means to attend to the body, mind and spirit of people at work, and how spirituality in the workplace is not limited to faith-based organizations.
Jim Funk is a consultant who helps leaders, teams and organizations discover and develop their full potential. He is passionate in believing that strong leadership competence combined with the leader’s personal characteristics, values and virtues are key to achieving goals and driving business results. In addition to his work at J L Funk & Associates, Jim has served on various boards and commissions, and is currently a member of the Economy of Communion in North America Commission. Learn more about Jim’s work at www.jlfunk.com and www.linkedin.com/in/jlfunk or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.